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Back to the Land

What’s driving the resurgence of interest in the Catholic Land Movement, a century after its original incarnation

by
Maggie Phillips
July 12, 2022
Federica Scalise
Federica Scalise

Amid a global fertilizer shortage and worldwide food crisis precipitated by the war in Ukraine, cascading pandemic supply chain disruptions, and the ever-present challenges of climate change, some Catholics in the U.S. are working to reclaim traditional European farming methods and ways of life. In a time characterized by disruption and uncertainty, they are motivated by a desire for more autonomy in the way they feed and provide for their families, physically as well as spiritually. Among them are members of the Catholic Land Movement, a revival of the early-20th-century Catholic Land Associations, which arose in interwar Britain to combat what its adherents saw as the growing social isolation of industrial Europe. Today’s Catholic Land Movement is distinctly 21st century, with methods and interests that align in surprising ways with more progressive causes.

Michael Guidice is known online as Michael Thomas of Sharon. He tweets about homesteading in upstate New York, conservative politics, the benefits of a return to the land, and most recently, about the Catholic Land Conference he is planning in August in Sharon Springs, New York. Once a Mohawk Valley health spa mecca, today Sharon Springs boasts a quaint downtown with historic buildings, antique shops, and bed-and-breakfasts. It is also home to what the conference website describes as “an emerging traditional Catholic community” located “25 miles from a TLM” (traditional Latin Mass church). Conference workshops, discussions, and events will include gardening, seed saving, haymaking and scything, livestock care, breadmaking, canning, and homeschooling.

Many of these interests fall under the category of homesteading, the self-sufficiency and small-scale farming trend that is currently enjoying a moment in broader secular society. In fact, it was Guidice’s interest in agricultural traditionalism that brought him to Catholic traditionalism, which is a self-conscious revival of the liturgies, practices, and trappings of an earlier time in the Catholic Church. At the time of the original Catholic Land Associations in the late 1920s, customs and practices that are considered traditional today were the only thing available to Roman Catholics: Before the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, the Catholic Mass was celebrated in Latin rather than local languages. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI loosened the Vatican requirement to obtain special approval to practice the traditional Latin Mass. Even as the practice gained in popularity, traditionalism garnered controversy in Catholic circles as its more politically conservative elements increasingly began to voice objections to the Vatican II reforms, and even to question the legitimacy of Pope Francis himself, leading him to curtail the celebration of the TLM once again last year. 

However, as the ownership of a Twitter account might suggest, Guidice is no Luddite. Originally from Long Island, he is not some provincial plowman. When we spoke over the phone, he recommended a farm-to-table restaurant near my grandparents, with a chef he described as “French Laundry level.” In addition to his active Twitter presence, he is a frequent guest on podcasts. (He recently appeared on a call-in show for TradCatKnight, which describes itself as “a traditional Catholic website that covers: the apostasy in the Catholic Church, the coming one world religion/New Age, False Prophet & Antichrist, prophecy,” as well as Freemasonry, “mainstream media brainwashing,” FEMA camps, chemtrails, and “various endtime subjects,” and has a paywalled post titled “Why Catholic Monarchy?”).

To Guidice’s way of thinking, if people are turning to tribalism, nationalism, and other more ancient forms of association like race and ethnicity, as they sense the wheels coming off the post-WWII liberal order, it’s crucial for the good guys to be standing by with a productive outlet for those energies.

Guidice describes the original Catholic Land Movement as reactionary, a deliberate response to early-20th-century industrialization. For him, “reactionary” is not a pejorative word. “I have a critical lens through which I view modernity in general,” he said. Guidice is working to divest himself and his family from power structures that he believes do not have their best interests at heart, and places himself within a broader trend: “What I see, contemporarily, is that there is an equal reaction now to the consolidation of power by global technocracy, whether it’s health tyranny or other aspects, there’s a similar type of consolidation that’s happening right now, and it’s quite severe, it’s quite dramatic. And people are reacting to that.”

On a recent Zoom roundtable discussion, Guidice said: “Much of modernity is the inversion of natural order. When you work in the cadence of natural order, co-agitating with the graces that God gives us, and the grace that God is working in this world, a seasonality emerges … there’s a cadence and a rhythm, there’s a time for things.”

That roundtable was with a traditional Catholic media outlet Restoring the Faith, called “RETVRN to the Land! Discussion with 4 Dads who are DOING IT—The Catholic Land Movement.” The moderator introduced the event this way: “There is a movement afoot as the world becomes more and more uncertain, as people are plagued by more and more anxiety, and as what I call the ‘spidey sense’ of many husband-father protector-providers continues to tingle. Everyone knows something’s not right about the world, something’s not right about the way many of us are living our lives, there’s something evil about a master-planned community and we can’t put our finger on it.”

Guidice said he sees evidence that for Catholics, at least, this ambient sense of dread is coalescing around an intentional reclaiming of tradition and proximity to the land. With a little over a month to go at the time of this writing, the Catholic Land Conference has closed registration. “We are expecting over 250 people,” Guidice said via text. “The emails are still rolling in. Given the interest, we are thinking about fitting an event to some aspect of the liturgical calendar, and creating a regular cadence to group meetings.” Locally, he sees further signs of hope for his movement: There is the family in his traditional Catholic parish who recently decided to move out to a farm. Guidice said there are two neighboring families who also bought land in Sharon Springs, drawn to living the Catholic Land Movement’s ideals alongside him. He sees still further reason for optimism in the 20 people, both traditional and modern Catholics, who are working with him to create a 501(c)(3) Catholic Land Movement national organization to harness this energy. Beyond that, Guidice said he encounters plenty of Catholics who are increasingly interested in family farming, self-sufficiency, and raising animals, even if they are not aware of the Catholic Land Movement. Even Guidice, who began homesteading around a decade ago, said he finds himself “bewildered” by this stealthily, steadily growing phenomenon. “It’s funny how fast all of this is moving,” he said of roughly the past year, when he became more seriously committed to the Catholic Land Movement, and noticed an acceleration of outside interest. An acquaintance told him recently, “I just started this little Catholic agrarian account on social media, and already it’s got like a thousand-some followers.”

“Here I am talking to another reporter,” Guidice said. “I talked to another reporter last night.”

 

The first Catholic Land Association—one of an eventual network of six regional associations across England and Scotland—was founded in 1929, to train young men and families in farming and land management. The original movement took shape against a backdrop of widespread unemployment and the abandonment of thousands of acres of British farmland, the result of globally collapsing currencies and prices. Father Vincent McNabb, a Catholic priest, had published an influential book a few years earlier, called The Church and the Land, detailing the plight of the urban poor (Catholicism in the U.K. was predominantly urban at the time), and proposing a return to agricultural means for the support of the community and the family. McNabb knew of what he spoke, having been introduced to farming during WWI, when German naval blockades had made farming a patriotic, even existential duty for Britons. He was also a man of letters, with a few particular connections in the worlds of publishing and journalism who helped him propitiate his views on the need for a Catholic exodus from the towns.

Reactionary in both its original British and current American incarnations, the Catholic Land Movement’s proposals for social organization defy what most in the U.S. likely think of as fiscal conservatism. According to one former Catholic Land Association farm warden, Bryan Keating, Father McNabb was not opposed to trade unionism or to what Keating called “working class movements.” Keating said McNabb was heavily influenced by Rerum Novarum, an 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII. A response to laissez faire capitalism, the document put forward a vision of widespread, diffuse ownership of property to prevent the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of either the state or employers, a concept known as distributism. In 1931, during the Catholic Land Movement’s heyday, Pope Pius XI introduced another encyclical further developing predecessors’ thoughts on the topics of labor and property. Quadragesimo Anno added to distributism the principle of subsidiarity, that the state and market must not usurp for themselves the functions proper to smaller, more locally organized institutions like the church, community, or the family.

The original Catholic Land Associations influenced by McNabb were intensely focused on the importance of family. Today’s Catholic Land Movement also places family at the forefront. “What’s the lowest level of social organization?” Guidice asks. “The family. So [the Catholic Land Movement is] intrinsically focused on domestic production and healthy family lives,” which the catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the original cell of social life.” For Guidice, however, this centering of the family is not a reaction to what he calls “culture war stuff.” To Guidice’s way of thinking, if people are turning to tribalism, nationalism, and other more ancient forms of association like race and ethnicity, as they sense the wheels coming off the post-WWII liberal order, it’s crucial for the good guys to be standing by with a productive outlet for those energies. His solution is simple: “Why don’t we just teach each other how to garden?”

In this respect, the TradCatKnight call-in show notwithstanding, Michael Thomas of Sharon is not so different from the Catholics outside of his rural Traditional Latin Mass community. While land ownership, a primary aim of the Catholic Land Movement, is a tricky proposition for many, said William Dinges, professor of religion and culture at Catholic University of America, when it comes to its more modest aims of reacquainting Americans with smaller-scale things like gardening and composting, “I would totally endorse that.” As an academic, religion and ecology are part of his areas of expertise. Also a certified master composter in Montgomery County, Maryland, he has a huge backyard garden, he said, “that would scare a lot of guys my age.” Dinges said he has spent many years involved in what he calls eco-ministry groups, and began teaching a course at CUA 35 years ago on religion and ecology, when “at that time, there was not anything to speak of.”

“I’m trying to start a revolution in urban gardening,” said Dinges, who used to spend weekends at a faith-centered agrarian commune and retreat center, in what he calls his “quasi-hippie days.” Originally from western Kansas, Dinges spent eight years working on a farm in his youth, to which he attributes his academic interest in ecology today. He likes Guidice’s idea of encouraging smaller-scale efforts at gardening, something he views as more realistic and less likely to cause disillusionment with the hard work of a true return to the land. “I know the reality of farm work and what that entails, and I have discovered over the years some other folks don’t know that,” he said.

As for the relationship of the wider Catholic Church to the environment, Dinges points to more recent works by the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, calling Catholics to what he calls ecological conversion. “We’re transitioning from a techno-industrial into an ecological age,” he said. “That, by definition, necessitates an ecological conversion, which is a really radical alteration in root reality. Conversion is not simply compliance behavior. It’s taking an entirely new way about ourselves, about this beautiful blue planet.” In his 1990 World Peace Day statement, Pope John Paul II specifically linked humanity’s turning away from nature in pursuit of consumerism and instant gratification to deeper moral problems. It was, Dinges said, “the first time from the papacy that a document of this nature was devoted exclusively to ecology and the environment, among other things, framing this as a profoundly moral issue.” In 2015, Pope Francis, the frequent object of traditionalist Catholic criticism, published the papal encyclical Laudato Si’. An encyclical is “the highest form of teaching authority in the Church,” Dinges said. In this ecological document, sounding a lot like Guidice and company, Francis told the faithful, “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

A reactionary movement that touts a traditionalist orientation can manifest things that aren’t good, to be frank about it. We know the consequences of Germany and the Weimar Republic and what happened there.

The bucolic communities extolled by the Catholic Land Movement’s original founders were part of an effort to salvage or reinstitute an agrarian reality that had previously existed in the culturally and ethnically homogenous societies of Britain. A movement that draws its aesthetic and philosophical origins from Northern Europe may have a hard time making inroads. While Guidice pointed out that much of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar is synchronous with the agricultural seasons, he acknowledged that this is not the case in the Global South, where Easter happens in winter and Christmas in the summer. Indeed, the Argentine Pope Francis hails from the Global South himself. Today, about half of all U.S. Catholics are Latino (that number climbs to 60% for Catholics under 18).

Guidice is also aware of the potential shadow side. “A reactionary movement that touts a traditionalist orientation,” he said, “can manifest things that aren’t good, to be frank about it. We know the consequences of Germany and the Weimar Republic and what happened there.” While he admits his focus has been primarily on English Catholicism and agrarian traditions, he acknowledges that today’s Catholic Land Movement in the U.S. must take into account the country’s geographic and cultural diversity. “America definitely calls us to think about those types of questions,” he said.

Indeed, some of the controversy surrounding traditional Catholicism relates to its bigoted elements. “These communities aren’t just standing up for traditional liturgy and the aesthetic glories of the European church tradition,” reads a 2021 opinion article in the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter. “They also sincerely believe that the Western European tradition is fundamentally superior. On that basis, they routinely defend acts of violence such as the crusades, which they see as ‘Holy Wars.’ Google ‘defense of the inquisition’ and an array of articles will appear—mostly from traditionalist Catholic sites.” And yet, the piece notes, the Latin language liturgy itself isn’t so different from Hebrew in Judaism, Slavonic in Orthodox Christianity, or Arabic in Islam. The Latin Mass need not be a gateway to white supremacy, since there are nonwhite traditional Catholic communities.

Guidice sees the Catholic Land Movement as a prophylactic against the xenophobia or racism that can accompany traditionalism for its own sake. “Having this idea that there’s reaction to the consolidation of power, that ends up as some type of demagoguery tool, or something that furthers the consolidation of state power, or even just an ugly reaction,” he said, “I believe that the Catholic Land Movement offers—I don’t to say wholesome, but yeah, a wholesome, good place to steer that journey.” He paraphrased C.S. Lewis: “We all want progress, but if we go down the wrong road, then progress is turning around. The one who turns around first is the most progressive.” Nor does he see the Catholic Land Movement as being exclusively traditionalist. Guidice said his intentions are “not [to exclude] the modern church at all,” and that he has members of the modern Catholic Church in his group working to stand up a flagship national Catholic Land Movement organization.

Echoing Guidice, Dinges sees a groundswell of interest in ecology from Catholics at large, and feels that the liturgy of the Catholic Mass has a role to play in cultivating that interest. “Whatever’s going on with the new Catholic Land Movement,” he said, “I could assure you that there are many Catholics who are strong advocates for ecology, environment, strong supporters of Laudato Si’, who would be more progressive, if you will. This is not a right-wing phenomenon at all.” Dinges identifies the American political left-right binary as an obstacle to a more widespread Catholic ecological movement. The urgent ecological message of Laudato Si’ has garnered little attention from U.S. bishops, who appear reluctant to speak out on the partisan issue of climate change, which is among the encyclical’s subjects, or to be seen aligning themselves with Pope Francis, who can be a Catholic culture war lightning rod. “If Catholics don’t hear this unambiguously from the pulpit, if it’s not integrated into their liturgical life, then the message is not getting out,” he said. This is a problem, however, for which Guidice sees an answer. He doesn’t necessarily see himself remaking society in the Catholic Land Movement’s image, pursuing what he calls “grand platforms,” even if he believes in the power of his movement to transform it. He said the emphasis is on doing, on work, with “movement” being an operative word in “Catholic Land Movement,” which in the end, he feels, leaves little time for ideological disputes.

In keeping with his interest in distributism and subsidiarity, Guidice envisions the eventual creation of what he calls a Catholic Land Movement “hub,” a standing, deployable agricultural resource capability that can give workshops to the wider community on composting, canning, and other things to help repair fraying connections, both between humanity and nature, but within society itself.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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